Gaslighting is a form of mental and emotional abuse, whereby someone attempts to manipulate, confuse, distort or deny your understanding of reality. Many of us will have experienced this at one point or another in our lives but when it becomes an ongoing feature of a relationship, the effects can be extremely distressing. It can impact negatively on our psychological and emotional wellbeing. The aim of gaslighting is to control a narrative, to manipulate, to deceive and discredit.
The term ‘Gaslighting,’ derives from the 1944 movie, Gaslight, starring Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer (also released in 1940 with a whole different cast). The movie focuses on newlywed couple, Paul and Bella Mallen, who move into a home where a violent murder has taken place years before. Bella Mallen begins to notice strange happenings in the home; objects being misplaced, strange noises and more specifically, the ceiling gas lights dimming. When Bella tells her husband, Paul, what she is experiencing, he tells her that she is imagining things and so begins her slow descent into questioning her own reality and sanity.
The movie cleverly uses light to illustrate and unearth a wider pattern of manipulation Bella is being subjected to and how she is literally being kept in the dark regarding a far more sinister deception.
In an unhealthy relationship, a perpetrator of gaslighting, in their quest for self preservation and in order to divert attention from their behaviour, may accuse their partner of being (deep breath) crazy, a liar, insensitive, untrusting, paranoid, stupid, guilty, ungrateful, uncaring, insecure, unforgiving, dishonest and unfair. This is gaslighting.
The purpose is to manipulate you in order to conceal or redirect your attention away from their indiscretions. For example, it may be to conceal an affair. They may lie to you about the relationship, accuse you of being paranoid and untrusting, they may even pull the crazy card on you. It may be that they have an addiction, such as gambling and they persistently control the narrative around your shared money but are secretly committing financial deceits.
When you call them out on their indiscretions, they may do a 360 on the conversation and totally turn the focus and blame onto you. ‘Well, if you didn’t start-up those evening dance classes, maybe I wouldn’t have been forced to look elsewhere!’ Before you know it you are defending yourself and your behaviour and the spotlight is firmly fixed on you, while their huge deceit is dancing around in the darkness unscathed.
They may use your insecurities to make you feel as though you are paranoid and at the same time, reinforce those insecurities by carefully planting seeds of doubt about you and devaluing you. This may include making comments about your weight, your intelligence, your age. They may do this subtly, cracking jokes at your expense. If you call them out on it, they may say you are being hypersensitive, overreacting or too serious. This campaign of knocking your self-esteem might be strategic, to keep you dependent on them. With all of my flaws, who else could possibly want me?
Gaslighting may include them rewriting the facts of history. You may know full well how events unfolded, what was said, when it happened etc. but they are imposing a new version of events on you. They may rewrite the whole situation in order to convince you of a new reality where by they didn’t kiss that waitress, they didn’t steal your money or they didn’t say that abusive thing. You may start to question, are they right, do I have it wrong? Am I going crazy?
They may also discredit you, not only to your face but to others as well. This can make you feel even more isolated and powerless. They may tell you that ‘others know what you’re like, they agree with me.’ This is an effort to humiliate and alienate you. To force you into submission because you are being discredited in an open forum. This may also aid them in gaining control over the narrative in terms of others outside of the relationship.
How many times have we heard a friend refer to their ex as ‘my crazy ex.’ Really? Are all ex-partners really crazy or is this an individual trying to manipulate your perception of that person to get you on side?
What is the purpose for this web of deceit, this trail of abuse and confusion. One thing, control.
The impact of having another person’s prefered version of reality imposed on you can be devastating. It leads to the victim having an extremely low self-esteem, feeling powerless, feeling isolated, humiliated, devalued and questioning their own sanity.
In an instant a gaslighter can make you question your brains own perception of the reality you thought you knew to be true. It is a manipulative form of brain washing that can feel frightening, frustrating and unjust all at once.
Breaking free from the cycle of gaslighting can prove very difficult because it can be so subtle. The web of deception and manipulation can be spun gradually and without even realising it you can become entangled. Sometimes it is only once you have experienced a break up or separation from that person, that you are able to untangle yourself from the web and regain your sense of reality without their influence over your thought processes, decisions and opinions.
When gaslighting has been an ongoing aspect of your relationship, you should be prepared that it may become a part of the break up/separation or divorce as well. On exiting the relationship, your partner may rewrite your marital history, leading you to question the truth of the relationship as you know it. Their narrative may create problems in the relationship that you didn’t perceive as existing in order to excuse their behaviour or infidelity.
Gaslighting can also involve undermining you as a person. You may have been made to feel that you simply cannot exist without your partner after years of subtle manipulation in order to make you codependant on them. The reality is you can absolutely survive without them. You are a strong, courageous individual with your own thoughts, opinions, ideas and perceptions and you are entitled to each and every one of them.
You are now aware that the person you loved has the ability to distort your understanding of reality, you now have the knowledge that they are capable of manipulating a situation in order to control you. This knowledge is power. You have the power to detach and distance yourself from that behaviour and allow yourself time to strengthen at a safe distance. This distance will give you space to regather your reality.
You may have been made to feel isolated but it’s time to let trusted people in. Draw in the support of those that you can confide in and will understand the situation fully. Do not stay stranded on the island that your partner tried to maroon you on. You will need support, encouragement and a great deal of love and self-love as you work to build up the confidence which may have been chipped away from you.
Always put your safety first and try to distance yourself from any behaviour that feels intimidating or physically threatening, informing the authorities or seeking support if you are concerned.
Most importantly, if someone is imposing their version of reality on you be mentally defiant, challenge, resist, don’t comply to their version of reality and don’t engage by looking through their lens. You look through your own lens on the world, that is yours alone and it is not to be tampered with.
Your truth is still the truth.